My husband of 12 years suddenly says he never loved me

We've got five children, one only 2 weeks old -- and now he says he wants a divorce.


Cary Tennis
April 30, 2008 2:25PM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

My husband of 12 years just told me he now realizes he never loved me. We have five children; the oldest is 10 and the youngest is 2 weeks.

Because of my need to understand, I have been asking many questions. He finally told me that he had been thinking about this for a long time. Yet a few weeks ago things were fine.

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He said he has lost himself, he isn't happy and he doesn't see the purpose of trying to work it out. He only stayed married because he felt obligated. He wanted to love me but the love is not there. He says that we should not have gotten married in the first place. He now wants a divorce.

When I brought up a time he told me he was jealous of a co-worker, he told me I was mistaken and that never happened, and that if it did happen that I confused the issue with something else.

I think the part that frightened me the most is when he said he didn't want to die like this. The stress was killing him and he didn't want to die like his father did.

I never met my husband's father. He passed away before we met. He said his parents argued a lot and his father stayed because of the kids and died unhappy -- which I found from his relatives was not true. Yet for some reason he thinks it is.

Is this a midlife crisis?

I really don't know what to think anymore. He says one thing then the next day revises the statement or says, "That is not what I meant." First it was he never loved me, then it was he loves me but is not in love with me, then it was he lusted.

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I love him very much and I do not want a divorce but I don't know if he really wants one or is so stressed about death, our finances and five children that he is having a breakdown.

Is there something I can do to save my marriage and my husband?

Desperately Looking for Answers

Dear Desperately,

There is a lot you can do.

I know you are frightened, shocked, hurt and confused. You show courage in writing to me. So I know you are a person of strength. You have five children and you have managed so far. So you have stability. Your children no doubt look to you for support not only physical but emotional. So hang on there for just one moment while I attend to some matters here -- for I am not just a problem-solver but a functionary with my own private aesthetic necessities to attend to.

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This morning I was thinking I've got a lot to do today so let's just get the column written and be done with it. I have those thoughts from time to time. Don't you? Am I the only one who occasionally imagines taking a shortcut? I had a "general observation about life" and thought perhaps I could quickly find a letter that was sort of bland and ordinary. I could overlay my general ideas on it and be done. So I began looking for a letter that seemed ordinary and bland. I thought this would save time. I went through many letters. I showered and shaved. I thought about my bland generalities. I tried to find a letter so trivial that it could be answered quickly. I could not find such a letter.

Sorry to go on like this but you see how my life is. There is a lesson in that: The truth is in the details.

I want to help you get through this difficult period. You need to take steps to safeguard yourself and your children. See a lawyer first. Then see an accountant. Get a detailed picture of what your financial position would be if your husband were to file for divorce.

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And then -- but you know what general opinion I was going to trot out today? I was musing about advice columns, and the essential lie at their core. A novel forces its characters to live through whatever it is. That is the great cruel power of the artist: To force his characters to live through whatever he chooses for them. That is the novel's great purity and its great honesty. Its characters have no escape except what the novelist offers them. They cannot take refuge in any of the bland escapes available to you or me. They are skinless. A novel thus forces us readers back upon ourselves as well, offering us no refuge.

Whereas the essential weakness at the heart of this advice enterprise -- a weakness that I skirt but must live with -- is that you are not one of my characters. You are an actual person. I don't know you or your husband or where you live, but I know that you are capable of choice. So I can respond to you only as another powerless human, an equal. That is the contradiction at the heart of any attempt to make this column a truly artistic enterprise: The artist does not have control over his characters. So it can never be static or finished. There will always be the question, How did it turn out in the end?

That is a question I hope to turn to in the second SYA book, but as you can see it is not an easy question.

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And that is the difference between what I am trying to do and what a "legitimate advice columnist" might do. At least I try to face it honestly. At one extreme, one might say I am using your personal pain and trauma as nothing more than a writing exercise, like one of the prompts we use in the workshops. At the other extreme this column would serve as nothing more than a psychological help referral bulletin board.

I do not want to offer you an escape. I want you to live with what is before you until you see it clearly. Why? Because that is the approach that I have been taught not only by life but by art and poetry and fiction: to stay in the fire.

The sophisticated formalists among us hold that art is not instructive and that to make it instructive demeans it. Yet the discipline hard art requires -- to stay in its fire while it works on us -- is the discipline we need in our hardest life crises. And the dizzying confusion foist upon us by artworks of chaos and seeming randomness -- that too is instructive. For it is that same dizzying confusion that comes upon us when our accustomed structures of family and work threaten to collapse. In the midst of it we learn to maintain a calm surface -- even as our skin is burned off and our bodies disappear in the flames.

Ah. That's the trick! Maintaining!

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At first nothing happens. You stand in the fire of art and all that happens is you burn. That is no fun. But then you see it's not just you that is burning: Something around you is being burned away. Layers of assumption and fear and grime are being burned away. As you burn, you start to see the sculpture in a new way.

This is the truth, but it is getting too abstract. So let us ask how this fits. Your husband is feeling many things and does not have the expressive tools or the inner flexibility and awareness, or the knowledge of philosophy and psychology, to detach and conduct himself in a compassionate and loving way. He has reached the end of the road as it were. And he has no one to turn to, no confessor. So he is confessing to you. That is probably a mistake, but it may lead somewhere just the same.

Having reached a life crisis, he must choose. He can seek greater self-knowledge and reach for a higher self. Or he can bail.

This is the moment he has reached.

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If handled properly, this may be an opportunity for getting more intimate. When he says he does not love you it may not mean what it sounds like; it may mean that, under great stress and at the point of collapse, he has ceased to feel. Like a man waking up from an accident, he finds he is paralyzed. Having lost all feeling, he thinks he must never have had any feeling to begin with. But surely he did have feeling at one time.

So he is confused. He does not want to repeat what he sees as his father's unhappiness. And yet he is doing just that. We repeat the thing we most fear. Or we create a new repetition: We repeat the old thing in a new form. I am doing it as well, repeating my father's incompletion, his tendency to help others complete their work instead of completing his own. We tend to do this, we sons of fathers. It's in our mythology. It's in Oedipus, right? And of course it involves blindness. Blindness, our great friend in the dark.

But he also has a choice. He can choose to open his eyes and see where he is, or he can choose to run.

This is a marriage emergency. You do not want to lose this man. But he is in serious trouble. He has reached a crisis and does not have the tools or the support to express it in any other way. So you have to take a certain amount of control. The best thing you can do is present him with some alternatives, so that even in his weakened state, if there is anything in him that wants to choose salvation, he can grasp at it. You have to create options and hope that he chooses one of them.

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Would it be possible for each of you to take two weeks off from work starting right now? Would it be possible for you two to get away from the house for a few days? Could you leave the kids with a relative and just take some time off? Or could you and he go away and just take the baby? Would that be possible? Would it be possible to take two weeks off and consult a mental health professional or psychotherapist or marriage counselor? If you have to spend money on it, spend money on it. It will be money well invested. If you consider the catastrophic financial losses you will incur if he bails on the marriage, any expense now to prevent that will be worth it.

You and your husband may be strong, self-reliant people who view asking for help as a weakness. But help is for people strong enough to admit the danger before them.

So, as I try to reconcile and combine these two contradictory disciplines, and while I beg your indulgence as I do so, let's recap the practical suggestions we have for you. First, seek the immediate advice of a lawyer and an accountant to see where you would stand legally and financially if the marriage were to end. Second, take two weeks' vacation time and insist that your husband take vacation time as well. Go away for a few days. Third, when you get back, contact a professional in the realm of marriage and family counseling. Fourth, try to arrange for your husband to have some support for himself, whether through religion or a family support group or a therapist, so that he can begin unwinding this terrible knot he has tightened around himself. There is probably much he needs to talk about with someone outside the marriage.

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Thinking about divorce? See p. 1, 246 and 314


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